What to say when someone is struggling
When someone is struggling, whether it’s due to mental health problems, physical illness, bereavement or other factors, they can feel isolated and helpless. While there seems to be more awareness nowadays about what not to say to someone in a difficult situation, people can often struggle to find the right words to reassure a person who is struggling. These phrases are useful ways to open communication and let someone know you want to help.
Are you okay? Are you sure?
Repeating the question may seem unnecessary, but it encourages people to open up, making it clear you’re interested in an honest response. This is important because “how are you?” has become a greeting and “fine, thank you” is considered the polite, appropriate response. By asking twice, you show you want more than a superficial social exchange.
Asking if someone is okay via text message can be a great way to check in with people who are struggling, especially if they have long term mental health problems or other challenges. They aren’t under pressure to respond straightaway and can take their time to open up about what’s happening. However, bear in mind that they may feel unable to respond and a lack of reply doesn’t mean your text has been ignored. Wait a while and check in again.
I’m here for you
Caveat: only say this if you mean it and will follow through. Asking for help can be very difficult and requires vulnerability, so it’s painful and potentially damaging when someone who is struggling asks for help only to be refused. “I’m here for you” is very valuable when it’s a genuine offer. “I’m here for you as long as I’ve got nothing else requiring my attention” or “I’m here for you when I’m in the mood” is not the same.
Keep in touch with the person who is struggling and let them know they can contact you. A simple “I’m still here for you” text is very powerful. The amount of contact preferred by the person who is struggling might be different to how much you would like – some people need frequent reassurance, whereas others would find being contacted several times a week intrusive and stressful. Be guided by how well you know them and what you know about their preferences.
Would it help if I [insert specific action]?
Asking if someone needs help is always kind and considerate, but saying “is there anything I can do for help?” can often be unhelpful because it’s general and vague. The person being asked might feel overwhelmed and unable to suggest anything. On the other hand, they may feel unable to ask you to help in a specific way because they don’t know whether it’s the type of task you have it mind.
Stating specific example of potentially helpful tasks makes it easier for people to accept your offer, or to ask for something which may be similar to tasks you suggested but more relevant to them. For example, perhaps you offered to drive someone to a hospital appointment, but they have transport in place and would find it more helpful to have a lift to the supermarket. By highlighting your willingness to drive, you demonstrate your willingness to perform the task.
Consider what help you might like if you were struggling. If you’re stuck for ideas, ask friends and family what help they would like to be offered in the same situation or search online. Perhaps they would like some home cooked meals to put in the freezer or help filling in a form to apply for benefits. Think about your own strengths and abilities – could you use your skills to help?
Bear in mind that different people behave differently in situations, so don’t be offended if your offer of help is refused. Often, the offer itself is meaningful and helpful, even if the person who is struggling doesn’t take up the offer.
Would you like to talk about how you feel?
Again, only make this offer if you are genuine and don’t be offended if the answer is “no, thanks”. Often, discussing emotional wellbeing can difficult, or even distressing, for the person listening. Protect yourself by volunteering to listen only if you feel able to do so without it having a lasting negative effect on your own mental health.
Listen to the person who is struggling and give them space to talk. Don’t interrupt or chime in with unsolicited advice. Ask questions to enhance your understanding of what they’re saying, such as asking them to clarify a point or to elaborate on what they mean. Let them express what they need to express without contradicting or invalidating what they say. While their perspective might be different to yours, it’s their truth.
If you feel the urge to share an insight or observation, make sure it’s true, kind and necessary. Don’t pretend to be a therapist: trying to psychoanalyse someone is potentially harmful. Often, our own preconceptions and assumptions can obscure what someone is saying and we can easily misinterpret what they mean. If you think they need counselling or another talking therapy, suggest they seek someone who is qualified (seeing their GP is a helpful first step, as they are usually aware of NHS, charitable and private services available in their local area). Never attempt to be a substitute for a professional therapist.
Might you be able to [insert specific action here]?
Take a gentle approach when asking this question and make it clear that you’re not judging the person who is struggling. Emphasise that it’s okay if they can’t or don’t want to act on your suggestion – you’re just giving them an idea they might not have considered. Suggesting actions also reminds people who are struggling that they might be able to help themselves, which can give them a sense of control and improve their self-esteem during a difficult time.
Make sure your suggestion is realistic for the person’s situation – they may not have the time, money or confidence to try some activities. Don’t put pressure on them or try to blackmail them into acting on your suggestion – so-called tough love approaches can often make the situation worse and cause more distress. They may be unable to take steps which seem simple, which can be frustrating but actions which seem easy in theory are often difficult in practice. Avoid repeating suggestions too often, as it can come across as nagging and make the person feel worse about themselves and their situation.
Research support services and coping strategies which are appropriate and relevant for the person who is struggling. If you think they might benefit from calling a helpline or visiting a particular website, it’s useful to write the information on a piece of paper and leave it with them. That way, they have what they need to act on your suggestion in their own time, without feeling pressure to do it before they’re ready.